The Kashima Gatalympics is held every year in late May on the mudflats of Kashima. At low tide, these flats are exposed in their entirety, a great grey-brown expanse of thick mud that stretches undisturbed from the town’s concrete sea wall to the distant Ariake sea. For one day only, these mudflats are turned into a giant assault course, with a variety of events throughout the day which are all, in some way, tied to the mud. From giant rope swings and cycling races, to skipping stones and sumo wrestling, there is something for everyone.
By everyone I mean everyone; the best thing about the Gatalympics is that it is completely open to the public. Anyone (children included) can sign up as an individual or in a team and non-Japanese are welcomed with open albeit muddy arms. No stranger to mud myself, having been to music festivals in England, I gathered a group of five together and entered us into a two of the events. At this point the popularity of the Gatalympics became clear as we were politely informed that the team race was already full. There were, however, spaces left in the day’s main events, ‘The Gatalympic’ for the men, and the sumo wrestling for the women.
We arrived bright and early on the morning of Sunday May 31 to see crowds of people swarming the banks of the mudflats, an even mix of both competitors and spectators. We joined the crowds to watch the first few events and became increasingly excited as the competitors began their union with the mud. The transformation was startling, at one end of the flats stood a line of detergent advert individuals, spotless from the ankle up. At the other, a line of people that were only distinguishable from the mud by the whites of their eyes, patiently awaiting the hose to clean them up for their next event.
At midday it was time for the men to prepare for ‘The Gatalympic’. After pinning our competitor numbers to our t-shirts, we headed up to the boot tent to exchange our shoes for a pair of the two-toed boots used by farmers to plant rice seedlings. Suitably kitted up, we joined the briefing, a detailed run through of the different stages and what to do if we got stuck. The 100m course was broken up into four stages: A) the mud run – a ‘sprint’ through the deepest of the mud; B) the skipping stones – floating treacherously on the surface of the flats; C) the paddle boards – face first, as if you were catching a wave; and D) the planks – 25m of slippery fun to the flag at the end.
‘How hard can this be?’ I thought as I stood on the starting line.In front of me stretched the first 25m to the skipping stones, within easy reach but for the mud. The starting pistol fired and my forty or so compatriots and I leapt body first into the mud to start the assault. Immediately I realised I had underestimated the course, the mud was thick and cloying and dragged at any part of my body that came within grasping distance of the mud. Each step threw mud into my face, eyes, nose and mouth and I was soon covered in it. The temptation to give up was countered only by the idea of embarrassment of having to be dragged out of the mud by a rope if I got stuck. Eventually the mud shallowed and allowed me to board the skipping stones. Again I realised I had underestimated the section and slipping and sliding I made my way across the stones in fits and starts. The paddle board was by contrast relaxing, and allowed me to regain my breath slightly before the final charge. The planks had seemed the most straightforward from the start line, but nearly committed me to an early exit, as the Gatalympic ‘helpers’ made the journey more difficult by heaping fresh mud onto the already slippery boards.
The final obstacle was my undoing, a mud covered tube on an incline to the finishing flag. It seemed so obvious, the only way to reach the flag was to jump the tube and land triumphant on the other side. How mistaken I was, and as my feet hit the tube I slipped, rotated 180° and landed body first in mud so thick that I had to be pulled to safety.
As I stood in the line for the showers, the women started their sumo event, standing ten to a ring on platforms floating on the surface of the mudflats. On the whistle, they wrestled, shoved, pushed and pulled in an attempt to remove all the other competitors from the platform and into the mud below. In ones and twos the competitors fell from the platform into the warm embrace of the mud, until finally a victor stood triumphant on the platform above. The crowd whooped and cheered, captivated by it all.
The Gatalympics is the perfect spectator sport. The stepped concrete bank of the mud flats provides an amphitheatre for spectators and is far enough removed from the flats to prevent damage to cameras or picnics. Behind the bank, legions of stalls serve food, drink and souvenirs for all those in attendance and regular shuttle busses run between Kashima station, the event’s car park and the mudflats.
The Gatalympics took on the vibe of a festival as competitors and spectators alike laugh at the slips, falls and struggles of those stuck in the mud, whilst victors get generous rounds of applause and adulation. Whether you want to compete or spectate, make sure you put next year’s Gatalympics (the 32nd iteration) in your calendar, it is up there with the best Japan has to offer.
What to bring:
- 1 set of clothes for competing. the kind you don’t mind being stained a slight shade of grey.
- 1 change of clothes. Showers are available for cleaning
- A separate bag to put your muddy clothes in when you’re done.
The 31st Kashima Gatalympics:
• 5/31 (Sun.) 10:00~
• Nanaura Kaihin Sports Park
• 4427-6 Kou Otonari, Kashima City, Saga
• To participate apply online between 4/19~30 from online
Stay tuned for information about next year’s competition!